Today’s Athletes: Brain or Brawn

In common culture, many assume athletes do not have book knowledge and good students are not athletic.  Often times, due to these societal barriers, athletes are lead to believe that school is too hard and bright students never pursue athletics.

However, at the elite levels of sport, specifically the NFL there are many examples of gifted athletes who are physical and intellectual specimens alike. The circumstances are different as in order to rise to a professional athletic level it requires skill, talent, training, intellect, and a combination of both athlete and student. But is their rise to fame athletically a result of their success in the classroom, or vice versa? What if someone attempted to play a sport who was already gifted in the classroom? Will they perform at a higher level because of their smarts?

A study called,  Professional Athletes Have Extraordinary Skills for Rapidly Learning Complex and Neutral Dynamic Visual Scenes looked at the professional athlete population to determine the role of athletic success in learning performance. The researchers state that looking at the performance of professional, amateur, and non-athletic groups gives them insight into the distinguishing factor that separates them. Faubert argues the difference is the ability to process complex dynamic visual scenes.

Experiment details

Over 100 professional athletes participated in the study from the sports of soccer, hockey, and rugby. The elite amateurs made up 173 participants comprised of 136 NCAA sports programs and 37 from European Olympic sports center. 33 non-athletes were also included in the study. The median age for all groups was 22 years old. It is important to note that the researchers previously found no difference in sensitivity profiles regardless of sport.

To assess processing strength of the athletes a 3D multiple object tracking speed threshold task was used (3D MOT) which can be compared to navigating traffic or participating in a competitive sport environment. Four areas assessed with this test include:

1) Distributing attention among a number of moving targets among distractors, known in the literature as Multiple Object Tracking

2) Large visual field

3) Speed thresholds

4) Binocular 3-dimensional cues (3D) (i.e. stereoscopic vision)


Once all of the 308 participants completed the activity the results showed that the professionals had a higher initial starting point of mental processing and higher end point for learning than the elite amateurs and non-athletes.

Why is this important?

This information is powerful because it shows how much mental and physical ability is required to perform at a high level in sport. But it also should encourage future research on the effects that regular exercise has on youth, middle-age, and elderly populations during the learning process. This study shows that there is a relationship between being a student and athlete at the same time. Dr. Karen Postal, a doctor at Harvard Medical School states “exercise is the most effective way to improve memory and attention” (2018).

Memory and attention. Vital for success in school, on the field and many different activities. This specific study shows that at a high level the idea of sport and learning are strongly connected. Additional research shows that the partnership is critical throughout the lifespan too. Encouraging youth athletes to value school and young students to get and remain active is what should drive future research in identifying various methods to elicit the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

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